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Coming to a funeral home near you: Dancing pallbearers

Miami Times staff report | 6/12/2014, 9 a.m.
Polished pallbearers at John B.Houston Funeral Home give the deceased a stylish sendoff during a funeral.

Amid sobs and tears, they march and even dance before they carry the casket of the deceased to their final resting place. As part of the service, they would break out in snazzy, choreographed dance routines to help lighten the mood among mourners.

They are professional pallbearers, stylish men who help give a grand sendoff to loved ones during funerals. It's a growing trend in the funeral industry as consumers seek more creative and less traditional ways to celebrate their relative‘s life and legacy.

This new service doesn't come cheap. Some charge as much as $1,400, or more, for the fancy perk. Others give it away for free, as a way to one-up the competition.

John Houston, owner of the John B. Houston Funeral Home of New Jersey and New York, has been offering professional pallbearers since he attended Lena Horne’s funeral in 2010 and first saw professionals in action.

“It’s show business,” Houston says of the service that seems to be catching on in the industry.

Houston, 55, comes from the South, where the use of professional pallbearers, including ones who dance or march, is more common. When the Alabama native arrived in the Northeast, he says, he was appalled by what he calls the mediocrity of funerals. He was searching, he says, for something to make his funeral homes stand out, “something to put me above the rest.”

So, his gym trainer helped him recruit other guys from their gym to lift caskets. “Over the period of five or six Saturdays,” he recalls, “We put together the technique.” Now it’s just about perfected, he says.

“They raise the casket, basically shoulder it at the end of the service from the top of the church down the aisle, and put the body in the hearse,” said Houston, who became a funeral director in the Northeast in 1995. “Then they accompany the hearse, walking. Then, depending on the service, they may do the same thing at the cemetery, shoulder the casket to the grave.”

Of 10 pallbearers he keeps on staff, eight are used per service, dressed impeccably in formal attire, bow ties and white gloves.

Out of about 150 funerals he does a year, only five to 10, he says, request the extra service. “It correlates with the deceased’s position in life,” he says. People he calls “upper-echelon” want it. He recently had the family of a councilman in East Orange New Jersey request it.

The white glove service, he says, blows people away, because they recognize it as demonstrating “the highest level of respect” for the deceased. The only further step a family could take, he says, is offering a 21-gun salute.

In South Los Angeles, the Boyd Funeral Home also offers professional pallbearers, though it offers them at no extra charge as part of any funeral package, Candy Boyd, owner of the home, told the Los Angeles Times.

A Los Angeles Times reporter who recently saw the pallbearers in action described them as immaculately dressed, wearing black top hats, tails, burnt-orange ties and vests, and white gloves.

Their swinging, dancing movements, the Los Angeles Times says, are synchronized to gospel music and carefully choreographed by the team’s dedicated choreographer and drillmaster.

A YouTube video of the professional pallbearers is attracting new fans, but critics as well. Some say the new trend is too showy and even “disrespectful”. But the majority of viewers say they like the new service.

Houston says some funeral homes catering to white customers offer professional pallbearers, but that the phenomenon in the South is more often aimed at Black customers.